Rahab the Prostitute – A Postcolonial Perspective

Conservative interpreters present Rahab, a character in Joshua 2 as a celebrated figure of faith and conversion. A queer, postcolonial interpretation merits consideration.  Rahab is described as a prostitute living in the outer wall of the city of Jericho.  She assists two spies sent by Joshua to conduct some advance reconnaissance work prior to an attack on Jericho.  Rahab hides the spies and lies to the King of Jericho about her knowledge of their presence in the city.  Rahab brokers a deal with the spies to spare her life and the lives of her family in exchange for allowing the spies’ access to survey the city.  She hides the spies, and assists them to escape from Jericho.  Rahab’s act of betrayal suggests a testimony of her faith in the God of Israel.  Scripture declares that she and her family lived out their remaining years in Israel.  Additionally, the Gospel of Matthew suggests that she may be the Rahab included in the lineage of Jesus as the mother of Boaz by her husband Salmon.  This story is the subject of much discussion in Old Testament hermeneutics.

A traditional interpretation of Rahab’s role in the history of the people of Israel situates her as a true ally and heroine.  Many other conservative interpreters canonize Rahab as an ideal model of faith.  As an outcast in her own community and in the ancient culture of Israel, her assimilation into the community of Israel is a benchmark story of inclusion and acceptance in the minds of conservative interpreters.  Rahab is a prime target to betray Jericho.  She lived on the edge of her society.  She lives in the outer wall of the city, a place reserved for people who do not deserve to dwell near respectable residents.  Her position on the margins of the city allows Joshua’s spies easy access to her as a source of information and collusion.

Rahab’s societal and geographical positions provide an opportunity to examine this story from a queer, postcolonial perspective.  Rahab’s occupation as a prostitute situates her in a queer sociocultural position.  She does not conform to respectable societal protocols.  Yet Rahab is a vulnerable target in several ways.  She is a woman and a prostitute.  She also lives on the fringes in a place reserved for people who do not conform to socially acceptable standards.  She is ripe for the influence of Joshua’s spies.  She has nothing to lose in terms of her standing in her own culture.  If she assists the invading colonizers, she wins favor, position and the possibility of preserving her life and the lives of her relatives.  Marcella Althaus-Reid states, “Rahab’s narrative is centered around an ethos of betrayal and submission to imperial powers, but also of relinquishing the imaginary of female transgression which surrounds the construction of her identity.”[1]  Althaus-Reid rejects the idea that Rahab betrays her nation and asserts that Rahab also betrays the core of her queerness by contributing to the colonial oppression of Israel.  Her betrayal of her queerness and her allegiance to an androcentric and patriarchal system of colonial oppression result for queer readers in a less sympathetic image of Rahab.  No longer is she a faithful convert but a ruthless traitor intent on kicking the dust off the very characteristics that set her apart from others in her community

Althaus-Reid and Scholz both provide compelling reasons to examine this story more closely in light of both its queer and postcolonial interpretations.  Althaus-Reid refers to the story of Rahab as “The Origin of Queer betrayal.”[2]  Examining Rahab through a queer, postcolonial lens does lend itself to a different interpretation of the story and makes Rahab a far less sympathetic character.  Rahab becomes less of a heroine and more of complicit traitor.  Scholz writes, “To sum up, feminist postcolonial interpreters escape the conundrum of gynocentric-feminist treatments because they connect the analysis of gender with the analytical categories of ethnicity, sexuality, and the geopolitics of power.”[3]  The juxtaposition of Rahab’s status as faithful convert versus selfish conspirator is problematic to some feminist interpreters who still wish to keep the focus on Rahab as a loyal convert caught up in a demonstration of faith.

[1] Althaus-Reid, Marcella M. “Searching for a Queer Sophia-Wisdom:  The Post-Colonial Rahab,” in Patriarchs, Prophets and Other Villians, ed. Lisa Isherwood.  (London:  Equinox, 2007), 132.

[2] Scholz, Suzanne.  “Convert Prostitute or Traitor?  Rahab as the Anti-Matriarch in Biblical Interpretations;” in In the Arms of Biblical Women, ed. Mishael Caspi and John Greene.  (Piscataway NY:  Gorgias Press, 2013), 172.

[3] Scholz, 176.